One of the first things that Denis Podalydès wrote to me on the subject of The Disappearance of The Landscape by Jean-Philippe Toussaint was a question: is this about a sudden, violent intrusion of reality into the deepest spheres of man’s thought, imagination, of his capacity to create mental representations?
At the moment when, due to the explosion, everything freezes, it is not the image of reality that he saw last which prevails, but the thoughts that attach themselves to the place where at that point his mind was wandering. In Toussaint’s text the narrator’s “last visible instant of my life” does not come from outside, but from inside. A thought froze like in a photograph, where the time is suspended, and where the instant barely perceived is already gone, already dead. In The Disappearance of The Landscape, the world of imagination closes like a camera shutter, or like a lens cover. It seemed to me that the character’s skull was also becoming a photo camera.
Listening to Denis reading the first pages to me and imagining the text transposed to stage, photography came immediately to mind because we hear about the decisive moment when reality, the exterior, sweeps, at light speed, across the interior. I was not surprised to learn that the only image that Jean-Philippe Toussaint gave to Denis Podalydès along with his text, was a photograph, that of the man’s window in Ostend, of which he gives precise dimensions: 3 x 5 meters – useful information for the set-designer. Behind this window so precisely described by Toussaint, I imagine the horizontal unfolding of an ever-transforming photograph. A landscape that recalls the scrolling of images often described in near-death experiences. A big printed canvas that would unroll, literally, thanks to two vertical rollers (like Wagner’s machines that unfolded a painted canvas). Landscape format photographs would scroll like a long travelling, on rails – wasn’t he in the subway when the explosion occurred? – and the Ostend beach could transform into the town of Tokyo and then into Café Métropole in Brussels, then into a wall that gradually rises.
However, this device would not only show the landscape but also its disappearance. The show would last as long as is needed for the images to unfold, which depends on the length of the canvas on which the landscape is printed and on the speed of unfolding. This unfolding device is doomed to stop. It measures time. In the text, The Disappearance of The Landscape begins with fog. Fog: atmospheric phenomenon causing an intense diffusion of light but also confusion in perception or remembering (Alain Rey, Historic Dictionary).
To lock away these photographs, this device, into a fog. In this fog, add images to the image. Make this fog, the fog of the explosion, but also that of the numbing of the mind. Fog blurs all images. The precision of observation is followed by a thought that turns hazy. Death here starts with death of the imagination, progressive extinction, not of reality, but of the last thing imagined. The physical reality, which I always strive to render visible on stage, is replaced by the physical imagination, thanks to Toussaint’s text. Thus, in a rather literal approach to the title, which has always been my primary inspiration, I would like to unfold on stage a landscape and literally make it disappear. Searching, at the same time, for the ephemeral and the eternal. Isn’t that what the theatre always aims for?
A man speaks, motionless, unable to move since a terrorist attack in a café reduced him to a life in a wheel-chair. He remembers the explosion, and then everything evaporates. Here he is, in front of a window in Ostend, abandoned, condemned to his thoughts, his memories, his minutely detailed observations. He sees an impressive building site coming to life: apparently a high wall is under construction, a wall that little by little invades the window space, hides the view, darkens and imprisons him in the room in which he sits. Thoughts and memories grow dark in turn. The explosion seems to come back. The shock was so violent, so total.
Could it be that the man had in fact died instantly?
I have known Jean-Philippe Toussaint for a few years. I recorded his text Football, but had been reading his writings since about 1984, always moved by each work. I like his style, his humour, his clarity, even in gloom. He makes me think simultaneously of Hergé, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (for the clarity of his writing), and of the film maker Lee Chan-Dong, who made Poetry and Burning.
He offered me this text about a year ago in a Parisian café – he insisted on handing it to me in person. This discretion surprised me, as if we were in a spy film. He hadn’t published it at the time (by Minuit, like all his other books), and was not keen on having it published – maybe only after I perform it. Fine, agreed, I received it as a beginning of a mission: to pass this text through the echo chamber of the theatre.
How can this stream of thoughts, sensations, reminiscences be heard (shown)?
And what to do with the death, always present, already there, a shadow and an instant? We needed a particular space, something new. Aurélien Bory got interested in the project. In the café where we also met, he began making sketches around the theme of a window gradually closing up. A number of different spaces surfaced slowly in our common world of imagination that started taking shape.
That kind of thinking is very stimulating. I read the text, the play-to-be, several times. One can feel in it the anxiety, worrying, the common and deaf anxiety of us all. Anxiety that has lost its name, its form, its contours, so much has it grown, spread, even though at times it seems to have evaporated. It makes us appreciate more both the quiet sharpness of the language and the blast of the explosion. It sweeps the world in one second, and it is in that particular second that we live – with elegance, refinement. I hope that our mission will be accomplished to the general satisfaction. One could say that this is one of the missions of the theatre itself: to give voice, body, space and time to the texts of great writers, to the literature of our strange times.
With Denis Podalydès de la Comédie Française
Text Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Scénographie et mise en scène Aurélien Bory
Light design Arno Veyrat
Music Joan Cambon
Technical design of the set Pierre Dequivre
Costumes Manuela Agnesini
Artistic and technical collaboration Stéphane Chipeaux-Dardé
Production Centre International de Créations Théâtrales / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Coproduction Compagnie 111 – Aurélien Bory ; ThéâtredelaCité – centre dramatique national Toulouse Occitanie ; Théâtre National du Luxembourg ; Théâtre Princesse Grace Monaco ; Équinoxe-Scène Nationale de Châteauroux ; TNB – Théâtre National de Bretagne ; Les Hivernales du Festival d’Anjou ; La Coursive – Scène Nationale de La Rochelle
The set was manufactured in the construction workshop of Théâtre de la Cité
This play has received a production grant from the City Council of Toulouse.
The text has been published by Editions de Minuit.